Plural Trouble

I had occasion to use the word agendum recently and it felt good. Here is the sentence:

I have worked as a journalist and a documentarian, and I can attest the worst thing either can do is to approach a story with an agendum*.

The asterisk is there to explain why I used agendum instead of the more commonly seen agenda — namely, it didn’t feel right to write “an agenda.” Most writers don’t have this conundrum because most writers don’t think of agenda as plural, which it is. “What is the agenda for today’s meeting?” is considered correct. “What are the agenda?” just sounds strange. And yet, when it came time to type an agenda, something held me back.

There are several plural words we commonly use as singular: media, data, graffiti, and paparazzi come to mind. Most style guides insist you treat data as plural (“The data show irregularities,” not “The data shows irregularities.”) But honestly, when was the last time you spoke of a datum? For that matter, when have you ever ordered a panino instead of a ham and pesto panini?

How about this one: news? Looks plural to me, and yet we use it as singular “The news is not good.” Like media (as in the news media), news is a collective noun. It suggests a flock of birds or a herd of cattle. And yet, the AP, the New York Times and most news organizations treat news as singular but media as plural. (For the record, they universally treat data, criteria, and agenda also as plural.)

The Grey Lady, in a characteristic huff of elitism, explains its treatment of media thusly:

The term is often seen doing duty as a singular. But The Times, with a grammatically exacting readership, will keep it plural for now; the singular is medium.

However, those of us in the corporate trenches serve a different readership, one less exacting. If I hammer my students with one rule of writing, it’s this: write to your audience. I had this boom lowered on my own head recently, when I used raison d’être in a meeting. My associates looked at me as if I was from Mars, and I sheepishly explained that raison d’être is French for “reason for being.” Why didn’t I just say “reason for being?” they asked. Yes, why didn’t I? So I could sound superior? What was that about elitism?

So what to do in the business world? I still defend the mantra that words have meaning. However, I also understand the confusion most readers have with collective nouns (see news, above). Data, media, and criteria are still safely defended as plurals, so I recommend holding the line on them. However, agenda is now singular in the corporate world. That’s the way it is; agendum has been lexicided. If your bosses correct you when you correct them on leverage or i.e. vs. e.g. (both have happened to me), I sympathize. However, unless you’re writing for the New York Times readership, discretion is the better part of valor. We all have an agenda. Mine is staying employed.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://archives.cjr.org/language_corner/cultured_plurals.php

Verbal and Diction (spotted at NationalReview.com)

A quick dispatch from Jay Nordlinger on the National Review’s website:

To the passengers sitting in exit rows, a flight attendant — née stewardess — gives a little speech. She ends with, “Are you able and willing to assist in the event of an emergency?” She then says, to each passenger, “I need a verbal yes.”

It’s interesting, this word “verbal.” It used to mean related to speech — written, oral, whatever. Now it seems to mean only oral. The flight attendant means, “You can’t nod your head or something. You have to say the word ‘yes.’” Why doesn’t she say “I need an oral yes”? Probably because the word “oral” has a vulgar connotation.

I’m going to disagree on two counts with Mr. Nordlinger here. First, verbal as a synonym for oral has a long tradition. I myself was involved in a dispute over a verbal agreement (also known as an oral contract — the terms are interchangeable in legalese) in the 1990s. If that’s not venerable enough for you, both Dictionary.com and this fellow cite uses of verbal to mean “spoken” as early as the 1400s. (Perhaps Caxton was called out by our forerunner — Lexycyd, a Rebyuck of ye Eviferashon of WORDS Moft Damnyng.)

Another disagreement — we use oral in many contexts that don’t evoke oral sex (I’m assuming that’s what Mr. Nordlinger meant to say): oral hygieneoral report, and oral history come to mind immediately. However, I concede that where flight attendants are concerned, any tactic to avoid innuendo is a smart one.

But wait! Jay’s not finished with you yet!

I’m reminded of the word “diction.” It used to mean — and surely still means, formally — word choice. Somewhere along the line, it got equated to “elocution” or “enunciation.”

To be sure, the first and formal definition of diction is the choice of words in a verbal composition (hence dictionary!). As with verbal, I suspect the secondary meaning has been with us for some time. At least stewardesses didn’t have to contend with that.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References:
http://www.nationalreview.com/article/444633/obama-play-c-jay-nordlingers-impromptus-2-6-17
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/verbal
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/verbal
https://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/is-there-a-difference-between-verbal-and-oral/
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/verbal
http://www.dictionary.com/browse/diction
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/06/cathay-pacific-uniforms_n_5273467.html

How I Learned To Stop Being a Grammar Nazi And Get On With Life (from The Federalist)

 is a self-confessed “grammar nazi.” According to her new article, she got over it for three very good reasons:

  1. Correctness Is Often Not as Correct As You Think

  2. Language Is Alive

  3. Don’t Want to Be a Jerk

Good reasons, if you ask us. We have addressed reason #2 in posts past, and we agree. Our stated reason for defending the canonical meanings of words is so you can avoid looking like an idiot. Take our word for it.

However, Ms. Magness makes a brutal error from the get-go. She’s not just a grammar nazi, but also a usage nazi. “Grammar” is not spelling, syntax, or correct meanings. Yes, we went there. Pin number 3 on us. We don’t mind.

Surety (spotted in the New York Times)

Even since before his inauguration, Mr. Trump’s rise has been characterized by an erosion of surety, bizarre and inscrutable subplots worthy of an airport-bookstore spy thriller, by epistemological questions about what is truth and what is fiction like no time in recent American history.

By the ghost of William Safire, what a paragraphInscrutable, epistemological… so much for writing to a sixth grade reading level.

We haven’t reported a sighting recently (not that there haven’t been any), so here it is, writ large: surety, which we covered four years ago. Why the Gray Lady did not choose the more certain certainty we cannot say. Perhaps they wanted to suggest Trump is eroding the guarantee past Presidents have made for stability and security. Not that he ran on any such thing.

As noted in our articlesurety can mean “certainty,” but since it has other meanings where certainty does not – well, let’s just say that erodes the surety that readers will cotton the writer’s meaning.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/25/us/trumps-presidency-upends-familiar-story-lines.html?_r=0

Surety

Unlawful fornicators

Here be false etymologies! (Submit yours!)

Warning: R rated language herein

So there I was, sitting in my favorite coffee shop working, when it came: the inevitable “couple monologue.” You know the kind – the man pontificating on some topic for which he retains deep and complete knowledge, the woman listening and nodding politely*:

“For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge! That’s where FUCK comes from!”

I rolled my eyes and put on my headphones. The only thing worse than talking loudly in a quiet space is talking loudly about things you have no knowledge of. I thought that this false etymology, like the myth of the flat Earth, had been debunked the world over. But no, there it was, sullying my café americano with both obscenity and ignorance.

The word fuck likely comes from some long-dead root word, since other Germanic languages have cognates: fukka (Norwegian); focka (Swedish); ficken (German); and fokken (Dutch). This etymology is not the only contender, but the acronym (sometimes explained as Fornication Under the Consent of the King) one is universally rejected by word nerds worldwide.

But silly trees can yield good fruit. This conversation got me thinking: what are your favorite false etymologies?  They can be folk etymologies, back-formations, urban legends, whatever. Leave a comment here or on our Facebook page. Surprise us!

Oh, and speaking of surprises, while it’s typically the fellow mansplaining, in this case it was the lady. Don’t Assume Modern Nitwits!

Otto E. Mezzo

*I never do this.

References: https://solongasitswords.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/on-the-origin-of-fuck/
http://www.snopes.com/language/acronyms/fuck.asp
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuck

 

Call Center Spelling Alphabets, or Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I recently had to read my VIN (not VIN number) to an insurance call center representative. The conversation couldn’t have been more painful:

Me: Ready? One-H-N

Rep: N as in Nancy?

Me: Yes. One-H-N-C

Rep: C as in cat?

Me (starting over): Yes. One Hotel November Charlie

Rep: I’m sorry. WHAT?

Yes, frustrated with clarifying each and every letter, I resorted to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, believing it to be universally understood. Wrong again. You doubt me? How many of these code words have you used?

nato-codewords

Unless you fly planes or are eligible for veteran’s benefits, your answer is likely none. Here are code words I have heard tossed about amidst the hold music:

call-center-aplhabet

So I wondered: where do call center reps and other civilians come up with their spelling alphabets? Is it random, as so often seems to be the case? It certainly isn’t informed by the military’s version, of which only the seldom-used Victor and X-ray appear.

The answer appears to come from the Thin Blue Call Center. Compare the ad hoc call center alphabet with the LAPD’s standardized spelling alphabet:

police

Now we see a pattern emerging. Most of the names, plus boy, seem to have translated into the non-public safety sphere, likely due to the abundance of cop shows and folks who have volunteered with firefighting units and rescue squads. The LAPD alphabet, while not wholly universal, at least boasts the benefit of brevity: Nora is much shorter than November, Union beats Uniform, and, at least in the United States, Queen is more recognizable than Quebec (which must be pronounced KAY-BEC).

But other problems persist: ball and Paul for B and P don’t work – they are too easily confused. The other problem is instant recognition. If one struggles to think of a code word for a letter, then that person will not decode code words quickly, leading to endless repeatings and correctings.

That’s why I like having a standardized spelling alphabet at my fingertips. However, unless everyone understands your standard, the result is one big Charlie Foxtrot.

Oscar Tango Tango Oscar

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LAPD_radio_alphabet

https://www.policeone.com/communications/articles/222829006-The-police-alphabet-an-important-language-for-LEOs/

 

David and Goliath

David and Goliath by Titian

David and Goliath by Titian

So this headline came up in my news feed:

Yesterday in Maine, David beat Goliath

The story is not important (it’s about grassroots gun rights groups prevailing against billionaire Michael Bloomberg). What stopped me cold was the headline. Let’s recap the original source material.

In 1 Samuel chapter 17, Goliath is the champion of the Philistines, Israel’s mortal enemy. His height is given as “six cubits and a span,” which is almost three meters (or 9 feet 9 inches) tall. Some manuscripts give his height as “four cubits and a span,” which at 6 feet 9 inches/two meters is still impressive. Suffice to say, the man is a beast. He taunts the army of Israel every day, challenging any one of their warriors to single combat. No one bites until David, visiting his older brothers on the front lines, picks up the gauntlet. The plucky shepherd from Bethlehem meets the heavily armored and armed Goliath on the field of battle, equipped with only a sling and five stones. He only needs one. David fells Goliath with one rock to the noggin, then slices off the giant’s head for good measure. Israel wins.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School, watched Veggie Tales, or grew up in the Western Hemisphere knows this story. Here’s something else everyone knows: David won.

David and Goliath has become such shorthand for the little guy taking on big business/big government/big money, that people forget the outcome of the original battle. Rather than ironic, this headline just reads as “so what?”

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, people are rethinking the idea that David was the underdog. He did have the Almighty on his side, after all. Which is probably why scrappy startups like to think of themselves as David.

Anyhow, we have no beef with David and Goliath as a metaphor for little guy vs. juggernaut. We do take exception to headline writers with no sense of history.

Otto E. Mezzo

References:

http://www.themainewire.com/2016/11/yesterday-maine-david-beat-goliath/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+17

http://gladwell.com/david-and-goliath/

http://www.inc.com/bill-murphy-jr/3-things-people-get-wrong-about-david-vs-goliath.html

 

Bigly

As I mentioned before, Lexicide strives to maintain political agnosticism. However, we’re more than ready to pounce on any figure, left or right, who mangles the English language. At the time of this writing, no one accumulates more press for his malapropisms than Donald J. Trump. While Hillary Clinton eviscerates “deplorables” and Gary Johnson wonders what’s “a lepo” (and he’s not the only one), Trump has peppered his speech with odd and incorrect usage from the beginning of his campaign, referring to the “Department of Environmental” and the Biblical book of “Two Corinthians”.

One of his most-repeated malapropisms is bigly. Or is it (a malapropism, I mean)? October surprise! It’s actually a real word, according to Dictionary.com.

bigly

 

 

 

 

 

 

It means exactly what you think it means. So score one for the Donald’s adverb usage. At least he doesn’t insist on feeling badly. Oh, wait. Never mind.

– Otto E. Mezzo

P.S. As to whether Trump said bigly or big league during the last debate, we could care less. Ask the Washington Post.

Where have all the verbs gone? (a classic re-run)

In this month’s article, I quote a reader who pointedly asks “Why do people hate verbs?” I thought I would re-post this very early article from January, 2010. As a postscript, my family and I did move out to the country this summer, a culmination of our need to live a more verb-filled existence. – Otto

When I was in college (late 1980s), my roommate had book on his desk — it may have been The Rise and Decline of Nations. The cover always stuck with me. It showed a short, three-step platform similar to the Olympic medal stand, except it read as a staircase with one ascending step, one descending step and one apex. John Bull, the Union Jack hoisted forlornly over one shoulder, was stepping down from the apex. Uncle Sam, Stars and Stripes aloft, occupied the top. A Japanese salaryman, Rising Sun gripped in one hand, was poised on the ascending step. The image stuck with me for two reasons — first, because it’s what everyone assumed would happen in 1988; second, because it didn’t happen. So much for our prognosticative powers.

Today, the American business community still fears its fall from dominance. Millennial executives in casual shirtsleeves wring their hands over whom to watch. Will it be the Chinese? The Koreans? The Brazilians? In my estimation, it doesn’t matter. We are already on the path to inconsequence.

By “we,” I mean American corporations. The evidence of this is American corporate writing.

If words are a window into the soul, then our soul is dead — devoid of life and vigor — devoid of the simple sentence component that signals action, the verb. Have you noticed the straining effort corporate writers exert to avoid verbs? Why write “I uploaded the files using the FTP link you sent me” when you can proffer “File upload complete via FTP link per your instructions”? Even communication with customers has taken on a creepy, computery feel. I just finished a website for a global company who insisted “Please select an item by clicking on link” instead read “All item selections are via description link.” Does that sound clear to you? Does that even sound like you need to do anything? (And what’s with the abuse of the word via?)

2009 was a strange year. Some primal switch flipped in my psyche. It made me yearn for a tough, hardscrabble life where I would wrestle deer to the ground and haul the carcasses back to the cabin. It has made my wife desire a large tract of land to coax unwilling cereal grains and legumes from. We are white-collar urbanites who have never hunted or farmed or even dreamed of it. And we are not alone. More people I talk to at work and elsewhere — computer jockeys, artsy types, account managers — report the same stirring urges. Some zeitgeist is demanding action. Is it our sedentary work and lifestyle? Is it that we as a society are becoming soft, our every desire being serviced as we lounge in comfort? Is it because our institutions — our corporations, banks and governments — are failing us?

Yes to all. America was founded on risk and action. Why do we eliminate the verbs from our writing? Because of fear — fear of offending someone and fear of demanding action. Deleting our verbs means obliterating our essence. “I think, therefore I am,” but also “I am, therefore I act.” So 2010 brings a new manifesto to Lexicide: Resist! Act! Write! In doing so, we can fulfill E. M. Forster’s plea to “Connect! Only Connect!”

(The) Ask

In the course of a week, I heard ask used as a noun five separate times:

The ask is to get us the breakdown of sales by category in two weeks.

I know it’s a really big ask, but once we have the data, we can move forward.

The team will meet on Thursday and get back to you with a list of asks.

I asked Lexicide’s readers what they thought of this trend. A sampling of their responses shows the diversity of their opinions:ask-fb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good question. Why do people hate verbs?

Ask as a noun is not a true lexicide. The noun form has not killed the (proper) verb form, nor has it deleted requestdesire, or behest from the language. What it has eliminated is the imperative mood (“Please get us the breakdown of sales.”), which, as we know, is verboten in the corporate world.

Thoughts, opinions, asks? Comment here or on our Facebook page.